Summary

Conflict Period:
World War II 1
Branch:
Army Air Forces 1
Rank:
Major 1
Birth:
01 Sep 1911 2
Death:
14 Jul 2001 2
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Personal Details

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Full Name:
Otto Wittmann 2
Birth:
01 Sep 1911 2
Death:
14 Jul 2001 2
Residence:
Last Residence: Santa Barbara, CA 2
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World War II 1

Branch:
Army Air Forces 1
Rank:
Major 1
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Social Security:
Card Issued: Unknown Code (PE) 2
Social Security Number: ***-**-0781 2

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The Monuments Men of the Nelson-Atkins
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, 5 February — 9 March 2014

Paul Gardner (1894–1972), director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of art from 1933 to 1953 (Nelson-Atkins Archive)

As excitement builds for the release of the Sony filmThe Monuments Men, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art applauds six real-life Monuments Men who either worked in or closely with the museum. Monuments men and women, commissioned by Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II, were tasked with the protection, recovery, and preservation of millions of Europe’s masterpieces during the Nazi occupation.

“The men and women involved in this selfless effort to keep art objects safe during a dangerous time in history showed immense courage,” said Julia?n Zugazagoitia, CEO and Director of the Nelson-Atkins. “We are deeply in their debt for preserving these treasures for humanity.”

A display of archival materials will be on view in Bloch Lobby that includes postcards, manuscripts, newspaper clippings, and biographies of the Nelson-Atkins’ Monuments Men.

“My research has shown that these six men brought to their military duties the same passion for art and culture that made them so valuable to the Nelson-Atkins,” said MacKenzie Mallon, a researcher in the European Painting & Sculpture Department who has been working on this project for many months. “They took their responsibilities as protectors of these monuments very seriously.”

Nicolas de Largillie?re, Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Polandca. 1714–15. Oil on canvas, 58 x 46 inches (146 x 116 cm)
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City.

The museum employed four of the Monuments Men and maintained strong ties with two others. Paul Gardner, the first director of the Nelson-Atkins, served as Director of the Fine Arts Section of the Allied Military Government in Italy. Another former director, Laurence Sickman, was assigned to General Douglas MacArthur’s Tokyo headquarters after the Japanese surrender and served as a technical advisor on collections and monuments, making trips to China and Korea to assess the level of damage to monuments in those countries. He was awarded the Legion of Merit for his war services.

The first curator of European Art at the museum, Patrick J. Kelleher, served as the head of the Greater Hesse Division of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section. Otto Wittmann, Jr., the first curator of Prints for the museum, was part of the OSS Art Looting and Investigation Unit (ALIU).

Langdon Warner served as the Asian art advisor to the Trustees of the Nelson-Atkins in 1930 and was a close colleague of Sickman. He helped found the American Defense-Harvard Group, a precursor of the Roberts Commission, Roosevelt’s task force. James A. Reeds served with the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section in France in 1944. He taught linguistics at University of Missouri at Kansas City and served as a docent for the Nelson-Atkins.

The Kansas City Star (Sunday, 15 September 1940).

One of the finest examples of 18th-century portraiture at the Nelson-Atkins, Nicolas de Largillie?re’s Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, was found by the Monuments Men in a bomb-rigged salt mine in Alt Aussee, Austria and returned to Clarice de Rothschild, whose family owned the painting. It was purchased by the Nelson-Atkins in 1954 after Rothschild sold it to an art dealer in New York. During World War II, the Nelson-Atkins also served as a safe house for more than 150 paintings and tapestries from collections on the East and West coasts.

U.S. Senator Roy Blunt from Missouri recently introduced a bipartisan bill that would award Congressional Gold Medals to all 350 of the men and women referred to as Monuments Men. “The Nelson-Atkins has a rich history which is only enhanced by the individuals who have worked there,” said Senator Blunt. “These Monuments Men protected historical artifacts from destruction and saved these treasures for future generations. I am proud to introduce legislation to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the men and women who fought to preserve this priceless history.”

The Monuments Men, starring George Clooney and Matt Damon, will be released nationally on February 7. The film is based on the book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in Historyby Robert M. Edsel, who continued his investigation into the soldiers who rescued cultural treasures in Saving Italy. The latter book discusses the heroism of former Nelson-Atkins director Paul Gardner. Edsel has created the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, which honors the legacy of the Monuments Men. For more information, visit monumentsmenfoundation.org.

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Otto Wittmann Jr

Otto Wittmann, world-renowned director of the Toledo Museum of Art, began his military career in 1941 upon being drafted into the U.S. Army. For nearly a year he worked as an interviewer of incoming draftees, then was granted reserve status for several months, at which time he moved to the Portland Art Museum to become an Assistant Director. Following the invasion of Pearl Harbor, Wittmann was once again called to service but was soon offered the opportunity to attend officer’s training school in Miami Beach. In December of 1942, he joined the Air Transport Command as part of the first worldwide airline, built specifically to move troops and supplies by plane. While stationed in Washinton, D.C. towards the end of the war, Wittmann learned from his friend Charles Sawyer of the formation of the Art Looting Investigation Unit (ALIU) in the Office of Strategic Services. He was granted a transfer to the department and became the officer in charge of the OSS Washington Office. Wittman also traveled to Europe to conduct investigations on the looting of artworks, perhaps most notable the dealings of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) and their theft of French Jewish collections. Along with MFAA officer Bernard Taper, he interviewed the art dealer Hans Wendland, who was involved in the transfer of ERR looted artworks to the infamous Fischer Gallery sale in Lucerne. During his time in Europe, Wittmann gained an extensive knowledge of the European museum collections and built relationships with many European museum officials and scholars that would prove useful in his later career as a museum director. For his work with the ALIU, he was named Officer, Legion of Honor of France, Officer, Order of Orange-Nassau of The Netherlands, and Commander, Order of Merit of Italy. The Otto Wittmann collection of papers relating to the Art Looting Investigation Unit of the U.S. War Department’s Office of Strategic Services, 1945-1946 can be found at The Getty Research Institute in California.

Prior to his military service, Wittmann was graduated from Harvard University in 1933. He then returned to his home in Kansas City for several years where he worked at the Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art (now the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art) as the Curator of Prints. Due to the depression, Wittmann could not afford to reenroll at Harvard for graduate studies, but in 1937 Paul Sachs offered him a position as his assistant so that Wittmann might take his museum studies course. From 1938 to 1941, he was an instructor of art history at Skidmore College, as well as curator of the Hyde Collection, both in upstate New York. The Hyde Collection was a privately owned collection of largely Renaissance and 18th century artworks housed in a private residence in Glen Falls, New York. At this time, Wittmann worked with Mrs. Hyde to turn her home into a small museum where her collection could be preserved.

Upon returning home from World War II, Wittmann commenced his career at the Toledo Museum of Art. He was named Associate Director in 1946, and in 1959 became the museum’s third Director. During his lengthy tenure, Wittmann built the museum into a world-class institution, tripled the museum’s collection, and became internationally recognized for his community and education programs, as well as outstanding connoisseurship. He expanded weak areas in the collection, and paid particular interest to American art, Dutch art, and 17th century Italian and French painting. It was said that Wittmann “always gave higher priority to the quality of the pieces he purchased than in their monetary worth,” an indication of his talent as a museum director, his keen eye, and his intimate understanding of the art market. Never a director afraid to defy convention, he was also the first to integrate furniture, sculpture, and decorative arts into the painting galleries. Wittmann organized many special exhibitions, including “France: The Splendid Century” in 1961, “The Age of Rembrandt” in 1966, and “Treasures for Toledo” which displayed works he acquired for the museum and was exhibited in 1976, the year he retired.

The Toledo Museum of Art published Otto Wittmann: A Museum Man For All Seasons in 2001, the centennial celebration of the museum, as a tribute to the director who truly built the institution into an exemplary museum. Wittmann remained at the Toledo Museum of Art as a trustee after his retirement, and also served on the boards of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum. He was a founding member of the National Council on the Arts, and also an advisor to the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Wittmann served twice as president of the American Association of Art Museum Directors, from 1961-62 and 1971-72, and served as the director of the College Art Association. He was a member of the American Association of Museums, and received their Distinguished Service to Museums award in 1987. Wittmann died in 2001 at the age of 89 in Montecito, California.

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